Injecting an unknown substance into one’s body is a scary prospect. But it’s one that thousands of B.C. drug addicts go through every single day.
Now, the provincial government is expanding access to drug-testing equipment, hoping that if users are aware that their drugs contain the dangerous synthetic opioid fentanyl, they will respond accordingly and use with greater caution.
"We are expanding the piloting of drug testing right across British Columbia,” said Judy Darcy, B.C. minister of mental health and addictions, at a press conference in the Downtown Eastside this morning (November 10). “This information can save a person's life.”
Fentanyl test strips have been available at Vancouver’s first supervised-injection facility, Insite, since July 2016. After that trial period was deemed a success, the strips—which function similar to a take-home pregnancy test—were made available at additional locations throughout the Downtown Eastside in August 2017.
A ministry media release states that the strips are now available at overdose-prevention sites across the Lower Mainland and in some areas of the B.C. interior. In the coming weeks, they will become available across the rest of the province.
"Using the test strips at Insite has shown us that when people get a positive fentanyl result they are more likely to reduce their dose and less likely to overdose," said Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, a medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, quoted in that release. "So we know that drug checking can help people make safer choices, but we also know that drug checking isn't perfect. It needs to be used along with other harm-reduction practices."
According to a Vancouver Coastal Health media release, during the strips’ trial period at Insite, users whose drugs tested positive for fentanyl were 10 times more likely to reduce their dose.
In September 2016, the Straight reported that anyone can purchase the test strips directly from BTNX Inc, an Ontario biotechnology company. A package of 50 costs $175, plus shipping.
In addition to the test strips, Vancouver Coastal Health announced today that it has also deployed a more sophisticated piece of equipment called a Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR). It’s available at two locations: Insite (139 East Hastings Street) and another supervised-injection facility called Powell Street Getaway (528 Powell Street).
The advantage of the infrared spectrometer over the testing strips is that while the strips only indicate whether or not fentanyl is present, the machine can identify multiple compounds, including opioids, stimulants, and other drugs such as MDMA (better known as ecstasy or molly).
The initiative makes B.C. the first jurisdiction in Canada to make drug-testing equipment widely available and to encourage people to bring illegal drugs to government facilities for testing.
At this morning’s press conference, former Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) president Dean Wilson expressed support on behalf of people addicted to drugs.
"We don't want to die. We're not idiots. We want to live,” he said. “The fact that we are actually going to know what is going into our bodies is huge.”
Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson was also in attendance. "Lives can be saved this way,” he said. “We have lost far too many people and we need to take every step that we can to save lives."
On November 9, the B.C. Coroners Service released its latest monthly report on illicit-drug overdose deaths. It states the province is on track for roughly 1,470 fatal overdoses this year. That compares to an average of 204 deaths annually for the years 2001 to 2010.
The coroner’s report notes that so far this year, fentanyl and similar analogues such as carfentanil have been associated with approximately 83 percent of drug-overdose deaths. That’s up from 68 percent last year, 29 percent in 2015, 25 percent in 2014, and 15 percent in 2013.
At the press conference, Wilson noted that drug users have called for access to drug-testing equipment since long before fentanyl was even a problem in B.C.
“I originally asked for drug testing in 2001,” he said. “And nobody has had the balls to do it until now, so thank you very much.More